What Plato can teach you about perfectionism and academic career planning

“I don’t know if I want to be a group leader. If I do this, I want to be a good PI, you know. I just am a perfectionist.” At a brisk pace, Rose walks next to me through the spring forest. A few months ago, she got her PhD in the life sciences, cum laude, and started a prestigious postdoc shortly after. All signs point to a successful career as an excellent research leader. But she hesitates, looking around doubtfully.

Many researchers are ambitious perfectionists at heart. Naturally, you want to deliver the best results. You also aim for the perfect career. In your academic environment this is commonly identified with the well respected, tenured professor with an internationally recognized, excellent research group. Not that this divine state is easily attained in practice, of course. (That is why you seriously need a plan B for your career!)

But what if your prospects at academic career success look great and yet you feel a nagging doubt? What if you might actually get there, but you are torn inside: is this what you really want? Could you live up to the expectations, your own in particular? Could you be this perfect, successful group leader and still recognize yourself, as a friend, partner, parent?


The perilous path to a perfectionist’s paradise

Perfectionism can be a powerful drive behind excellent results. But it is also dangerous. It can stall your research output and drive you crazy with insane expectations. But it is also dangerous for your career orientation. Perfectionist ambitions can hold you captive. In your head you are stuck on this academic career track. You are completely focussed on this one version of success, blind to other possibilities. You take no time to consider the landscape, but are pressed with your nose against a roadmap to tenure. You focus on developing your self in line with the tenure-model, ignoring those aspects of your personal identity that may not fit the mould.

Even worse: having lost the connection with your heartfelt inspiration, you exhaust your energy. You cannot continue like this for too long. You know, because to be honest you see a burn out coming. Your perfectionist ambition gives you great focus and speed, but are you moving towards the destination you really dream of? The pursuit of an ideal academic career lets you believe that winning the grant competition or gaining tenure is the criterium of true success or even worthiness in life. But is this a fully rational perspective? A view that respects your sense of self?

In short, your ambition to become a perfect researcher sounds great, but for the doubt tugging at your heart. The whispering voice telling you that the path might not lead to your idea of paradise, that you might loose your true self along the way.


How to solve this?

Plato’s view about how mortals can achieve immortality holds a clue.

Plato argues that as humans we have two parts in our soul or psyche: immortal and rational part, as well as a mortal and irrational part. As a human being you will never be able to achieve divine perfection, i.e. pure rational immortality. Because being human implies that you also have this mortal and irrational part in your soul.

However imperfect by definition, you can approach perfection and strive become god-like. Because you get to choose which part of your soul you develop. The part with which you identify your true self determines your ambition and your chances at happiness in life. Plato has a clear preference here. According to him, you should identify your true self with the rational, immortal part or your psyche, if you develop it with true wisdom, you will reach for divine perfection. If you focus on mortal preoccupations, however, such as appetites or competition, you cultivate your mortal self. Your progress on the path to true perfection will be impaired.

These two ways of life became very influential in philosophical debates for centuries to come after Plato. Some, like Epicurus, argued that we should perfect our mortal self rather than focus on intellectual excellence. Yet, his ideas were much more balanced and rational than what we commonly understand as ‘epicurean’ devotion to sensual joys such as food and drink. Also for Epicurus the central question was: how can we, imperfect humans, become perfectly happy, like a god? Put slightly differently: how should we deal with our necessarily frustrated perfectionist ideals?


Let’s translate this to our academic setting

How does the idea of aiming to become god-like help Rose deal with her perfectionism and determine with her career ambitions and personal doubts?

First off, it eases the pressure of perfectionism. Rose no longer feels the need to aim for something that is principally out of reach, because she has now realized that this is an illogical idea. But the perspective on divine perfection still allows her to direct her life towards this ideal in a meaningful way.

Secondly, Plato showed her that the part with which she identifies her self is her greatest locus of power. If her career ambitions stem from instinctive, unreflected decisions the scope of her development will be imperfect and limited. However, if she is able to stay connected with the source of true wisdom, authentic reason, a new frame of reference will appear. Likewise, if her intuitions agree more with Epicurus’ perspective, she will now be able to consider her options in a broader framework that will make her decisions better balanced on the whole.

No, this does not directly answer her question whether or not she should strive for the perfect academic career and aim to become this ideal group leader. But this idea that started with Plato has given her a frame of reference to search for her personal answer. The crippling grip of perfectionism has loosened somewhat. She does not have to be a god, but she can become god-like. She is now free to really ask how she can become a better version of herself, an independent spirit tapping into her own wisdom.

Do you consistently opt for your true best self and heed your independent spirit? Or could you use some help to make your decision in full awareness of what really matters to you? If you are ready to move beyond the limits of what you already know, then I invite you to apply for a Right Question Session.



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